Why a church mouse is the trademark of quality furniture

8 minutes

Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson (1876-1955) dedicated his life to the craft of joinery. He taught himself to use traditional tools, experimenting with ideas to produce furniture based on the 17th century English styles.

To this day, Thompson’s company continues to make furniture in naturally seasoned oak that is solid, hard-wearing and functional – made to last for more than a lifetime.

The origin of a mouse as a mark of Thompson’s work came almost by accident. In the early 1920s, he and one of his craftsmen were in a cold church carving a huge cornice for a screen when the craftsman remarked ‘We are all as poor as church mice’. There and then, Robert said ‘I will carve a mouse here’ and as he did so it struck him ‘what a lovely trademark’.

Robert went on to carve a mouse onto every piece of furniture he made until it was registered by the patent office as a trademark in the 1930s – and by then he had 30 men working for him.

(Image: Robert Mouseman Thompson chair leg showing mouse detail. Credit tennants.co.uk.)

Thompson was born in Kilburn, a pretty village nestling in the hills of North Riding, Yorkshire, the son of a wheelwright and stonemason who saw his son’s potential and sent him to the new industrial town of Cleckheaton as an engineering apprentice. The 15-year-old Thompson hated Cleckheaton but his journey through Ripon led him to visit the cathedral where he was impressed by medieval craftsmen’s ecclesiastical architecture.

After five years’ engineering study, Thompson returned to the family business with drawing, design and technical skills which he combined with his traditional craft. His exquisitely rendered drawings and plans helped secure large commissions for domestic, commercial and scholastic furnishings alongside work in churches.

First major patron

After his father died, Thompson took over the family business and in 1919 accepted his first commission from Father Paul Nevill, a priest from nearby Ampleforth Abbey, to put up a large cross in Ampleforth churchyard. Robert had no idea how he would source the wood or transport the heavy, wooden cross but he made it happen and the men became lifelong friends.

Father Paul became Thompson’s first major patron and later commissioned him to build a library at Ampleforth Abbey as well requesting chairs to made so the monks would be comfortable between services. The result was the Monk’s Chair, squarely proportioned with sturdy legs and broad arms, a gently rounded back and a leather seat.

Such was the popularity of the design, versions for domestic use were soon in production and they are still being made by the Thompson family.  The chairs can be dated by their particular features – early examples were constructed with a ‘square’ stretcher, the rails running between one leg and the next. Around 1929, the switch was made to a ‘cross’ stretcher with the rails running diagonally between the front and back legs.

(Image: An English oak Monk’s Chair, c1928/9, with curved back and shaped arms, each side carved with scrolls, over three solid panels each carved with a mortar and pestle, lattice leather seat, on four octagonal legs joined by a square stretcher, carved with a mouse trademark with slightly raised head and front legs sold for £8,000 on March 4, 2023. Credit tennants.co.uk)

Before the mid-1930s, pop marks (small indentations) were found on the base of each leg, made when the oak was held on the lathe before being shaped into an octagon on the bench while from the mid-1930s the whole process was completed on the bench and the pop marks disappeared.

Designs ‘are a perfect fit’

Tennants Auctioneers, in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, specialises in Mouseman furniture and Diane Sinnott, Tennants’ 20th century design specialist and general valuer, has been studying Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson ever since she moved from London to the north of England two decades ago. She has sold more than 3,220 Mouseman pieces at auction.

(Image, left: A 38cm long by 36cm high English oak Stallion Group, carved by Stan Dodds (1928-2012) as two fighting stallions on a tooled base with carved mouse trademark, sold for £7,500. Credit tennants.co.uk. Image, centre: A 49cm carved English oak pheasant, in a running pose, with carved mouse trademark, dated 76 under green baize, sold for £5,800. Credit tennants.co.uk. Image, right: A 27cm carved English oak figure of a Merry Monk newel post top, the monk holding a pint and a bible, with carved mouse trademark hiding up his sleeve, mounted on an oak base, sold for £6,000. Credit tennants.co.uk.)

Diane says Mouseman designs are ‘perfect as they fit in anywhere from a castle to a bungalow and appeal to all ages’. 

She said: “I wish I had met Robert and seen him at work. He was such clever individual and so dedicated to his art. He produced simple, honest, handmade oak furniture inspired by the Gothic age and avoided modern tools.

“He loved the mortise and tenon joint which was dowelled for strength and he mastered an ancient edging tool for shaping and smoothing surfaces that gave his furniture a rippled appearance. His honeycomb-effect tables and sideboard tops were created using a carpenter's adze, a really sharp axe or a smaller hand tool adze.

(Image: The pretty village of Kilburn, in Yorkshire c1910. Credit tennants.co.uk.)

“Robert also kept everything local, sourcing seasoned oak from nearby forests and he would give youngsters in the village the chance of an apprenticeship by inviting them to make items and get them whittling.”

Leeds Girls High School

“There has long been a strong local support for Mouseman furniture at auction and one of the most exciting sales at Tennants was in 2008, when Leeds Girls High School was amalgamating with a local boys’ school at Audley. I went along to value Mouseman’s 1934 library at the school – he had been commissioned to the fit the room with wood panelling, 88 chairs and 16 refectory tables, all paid for by the Tetley family.

“I entered through two huge oak doors, which had a silver key, to find everything in a timewarp – even original Bakelite electric switches and cables were running under the librarian’s desk. I waited until the girls sat their last exams in June 2008 before going in to label and catalogue everything so there was no disruption to the students.

“The panelling was removed and went to a local country estate. The buyers bought about one-quarter of the library while many of the former and present girls also bid for pieces of furniture. There was a really special atmosphere in the auction room.

Growing international following

“Mouseman furniture with such provenance has always attracted devotees in the UK, especially Yorkshire, keen on finding furniture from his golden period of 1920s-30s. There is now a growing international following in North America and the Far East and while not every home can accommodate a six-foot Mouseman table, buyers can consider a Mouseman trinket such a small waxed fruit bowl or a pair of bookends.

“Carved animals and figures by the company’s master carvers have also become very desirable with collectors and they sell from around £6,000 to £13,000.

(Image, left: Carved animals and figures by the company’s master carvers become very desirable. This 26.5cm English oak Anthropomorphic Mouse, wearing an apron with tools, holding a mallet and a lattice panel (carved to the base THE MOUSEMAN OF KILBURN within a recessed mouse trademark) sold for £13,000. Credit tennants.co.uk. Image, right: A 27cm English oak Mr Toad on a square base, with carved mouse trademark, sold for £10,000. Credit tennants.co.uk.)

“However, the Monk’s Chair has become one of Thompson’s most favoured designs and when 1920s-1930s chairs come up at auction they fetch £7,000-£8,000.

“In our March 2023 sale we achieved a record £8,000 for an English oak Monk’s Chair, c1928/9. It featured a curved back and shaped arms, each side carved with scrolls over three solid panels, a lattice leather seat on four octagonal legs joined by a square stretcher and carved with a mouse trademark with slightly raised head and front legs.

“At our October 2023 sale another Monk’s Chair, made in 1937, went under the hammer for £7,500. This one, with curved back and shaped arms, also featured the crest and coat of arms of the McEvoy family and was marked 1937 P.E.McE. It was sold with the original receipt for £7.14s.10.

(Image: Robert Mouseman Thompson (1876-1955): An English oak Monk’s Chair, 1937, with curved back and shaped arms, each side carved with a monk’s head, over three panels carved with the crest and coat of arms of the McEvoy family and marked 1937 P.E.McE. Slung leather seat, on four octagonal legs joined by a cross stretcher, with carved mouse trademark. Sold on October 7, 2023 for £7,500, with original receipt for £7.14.10. Credit tennants.co.uk.)

Key to Mouseman pricing

Many collectors want pieces dating from the Robert Thompson era (pre-1955). There’s no guarantee that they will have been made by him, but the carver would have been under his tutelage.

The earlier the piece, the closer it will be to the original design so the date is most important to the pricing structure. The 1920-30s are the most sought-after Golden Years and achieve significantly higher prices.

There are many attractive forms from the late 1950s-60s that are starting to acquire pleasing signs of age. As a general rule, post-1955 Mouseman will cost roughly half of what it costs to buy a new piece.

A large 1950s table can fetch around £15,000 depending on condition and, for a 1980s Welsh dresser in top condition, expect to pay around £10,000.

Sotheby's New York holds the world auction record for Mouseman furniture – 70,000 dollars (£40,460) for a two-section cupboard c.1923 with elaborate ironwork by the Kirkby Moorside blacksmith Will Dawson.

Top tips when buying Mouseman furniture

Be sure to verify the age of a piece of furniture you wish to buy and get a valuation from an expert such as Tennants Auctioneers or contact Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen Ltd in Kilburn.

Some of the earliest Robert Thompson work does not feature a mouse so check other details such as tabletops which were dowelled and not tongued.

In the 1920s-30s, the mice on the furniture had front paws that could break quite easily so look carefully at the condition.

To work out the age, early Mouseman chairs had backs made from solid panels and featured octagonal legs. Towards the end of the 1930s, the company started making chairs with lattice backs. 1940s-50s furniture features solid leather while later upholstery also includes cowhide and cotton web frames.

For information visit tennants.co.uk

Insurance advice

A valuable piece of furniture should be insured under the Art and Antiques section of your home insurance policy. You should ensure there is a good description with distinguishing features, size and images which will help with identification. Consider the cost of replacement if damaged.

Valuations for insurance are normally based upon a retail replacement value, i.e., what it would cost the owner in the retail market. So, think about where you would replace the item – a top-end antique shop or auction – and by doing this at the outset you are avoiding disputes and queries at a later date, or in the event of a claim.

To speak to Howden about your home insurance call 020 8256 4901 or email privateclients@howdeninsurance.co.uk

Mouseman today

Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Ltd continues in Kilburn, where oak furniture is made using the original techniques and the same ethos – ‘one man’s work from start to finish’.

The company still takes on bespoke commissions and recently completed a commission to provide bookcases and furniture for the archive at the new London headquarters of NM Rothschild & Sons.

The Robert Thompson showroom (Robert Thompson’s original home) and viewing gallery opens Monday to Thursday 9am-5pm; Friday 9am-3.45pm and Saturday (showroom only) 10am-noon.

Visit robertthompsons.co.uk
Address: Kilburn, York, North Yorkshire YO61 4AH